Human beings are masters of the first impression. We can glean information from incredibly short encounters, what psychologists call “thin slices.”
In one study done by psychologist Nalini Ambady, participants guessed someone's sexual orientation with above-chance accuracy simply by viewing a one second silent video of the person talking. In another study, participants predicted end-of-semester evaluation scores for teachers after seeing a 30 second silent video of the teacher in action.
As writers, we create slices for our readers. Unlike the thin slices used in the experiments though, our slices and the details that go into them are under our complete control. If we choose the right details, we can create strong characterizations in a relatively short passage. Suzanne Collins does this very skillfully in The Hunger Games.
Hunger Games tells of a dystopic future where a dictatorial goverment, the Capitol, intimidates its outlying districts by forcing teenagers from the districts to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. It’s definitely a page turner. I started reading it one evening and stayed up until two to finish. When I collapsed into a sleep-deprived nap the next day, my husband picked it up and finished it the next evening.
As my critique buddy Coral says in our group review of The Hunger Games, Collins keeps us hooked by trimming all the fat out of the book. Every scene is action packed and important to the plot. I won't talk more about the page-turning qualities here, although Kathy Temean has a nice post about chapter endings and how they contribute to the book's momentum.
The challenge of a fast paced book is that there is limited space for supporting characters. How do we get to know them with such limited screen time? Collins does this by loading the first impression. She crams focused details into initial meetings so we’re hit with a strong impression right away, leaving her free to continue the plot.
Here is a scene in the opening chapter -- the first interaction that we witness between the main character Katniss and her younger sister Prim. Every child gets one entry per year into the Hunger Games lottery starting from age 12. Prim just turned 12, so this is her first reaping year, and the first time she’s entered in to the lottery.
I hug [Prim], because I know these next few hours will be terrible for her. Her first reaping. She's about as safe as you can get, since she's only entered once. . . . But she's worried about me. That the unthinkable might happen.
I protect Prim in every way I can, but I'm powerless against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she's in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face. I notice her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the back again, and force myself to stay calm.
“Tuck your tail in, little duck,” I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.
Prim giggles and gives me a small “Quack.”
“Quack yourself,” I say, with a light laugh. The kind only Prim can draw out of me. “Come on, let's eat,” I say and plant a quick kiss on the top of her head.
Lets see what we have:
1. The passage starts with a description of Katniss’s fierce protectiveness toward Prim. Look at Collin’s choice of words. “The anguish I always feel when she’s in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face.” This is not just run-of-the-mill empathy.
2.The “little duck” moment. My critique buddy Amitha pointed out that Prim seems much younger than twelve in this scene. But the strength of this moment reinforces the image of Prim as small and childlike, someone who would not last an hour in the arena.
3.Finally, we see what Prim means to Katniss. “'Quack yourself', I say with a light laugh. The kind only Prim can draw out of me.” Prim is not just someone to be protected, but she is Katniss’s primary source of joy.
This is just 160 words, but every detail in the passage points the reader toward the incredibly strong bond between Katniss and Prim. The payoff comes almost immediately, when Prim gets selected for the Hunger Games. Because of this brief interaction, we understand completely why Katniss volunteers to take her place.
Lets look at an example with another supporting character. After Katniss is taken to the Capitol for the Games, she’s assigned a stylist to promote her. (The Games are televised and publicized on reality TV). Here, she meets her stylist Cinna for the first time.
The door opens and a young man who must be Cinna enters. I'm taken aback by how normal he looks. Most of the stylists they interview on television are so dyed, stenciled and surgically altered they're grotesque. But Cinna's close cropped hair appear to be its natural shade of brown. He's in a simple black shirt and pants. The only concession to self-alteration seems to be metallic gold eyeliner that has been applied with a light hand. It brings out the flecks of gold in his green yes. And despite my disgust with the Capitol and their hideous fashions, I can't help thinking how attractive it looks.
. . . .”Yes, this is my first year in the Games,” says Cinna
“So they gave you District Twelve,” I say. Newcomers generally end up with us, the least desirable district.
“I asked for District Twelve,” he says without further explanation.
[They go into another room where an extravagant feast is laid out on the table.]
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
I look up and find Cinna's eyes trained on mine. “How despicable we must seem to you,” he says.
Lets pick this one apart.
1.Our first impression of Cinna is his physical appearance. Cinna immediately breaks Katniss's stereotype of the grotesque and extravagant Capitol citizen.
2.And then, he reveals that he volunteered for District 12, the least desirable district. Why would he do that? Again, suggesting that he’s not your usual shallow citizen.
3.And if Cinna is not yet sympathetic enough, we get a moment of empathy between him and Katniss. “How despicable we must seem,” he says to her
Again, Collins makes full use of Cinna’s limited screen time. After a couple pages with him, we distinctly feel that he’s a likable and sympathetic character.
What do you think of this “hit them with everything” approach to character introductions? Does it work well here? Is it something that’s always helpful, or only in certain types of stories?